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Hiram King “Hank” Williams (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. Regarded as one of the most significant and influential American singers and songwriters of the 20th century, Williams recorded 35 singles (five released posthumously) that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 11 that ranked number one (three posthumously).
Born in Mount Olive, Butler County, Alabama, Williams relocated to Georgiana with his family, where he met Rufus Payne, an African American blues musician, who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. Payne had a major influence on Williams’ later musical style, along with Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. Williams would later relocate to Montgomery, where he began his music career in 1937, when producers at radio station WSFA hired him to perform and host a 15-minute program. He formed the Drifting Cowboys backup band, which was managed by his mother, and dropped out of school to devote his time to his career.
When several of his band members were conscripted into military service during World War II, Williams had trouble with their replacements, and WSFA terminated his contract because of his alcohol abuse. Williams eventually married Audrey Sheppard, who was his manager for nearly a decade. After recording “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin’” with Sterling Records, he signed a contract with MGM Records. In 1947, he released “Move It on Over“, which became a hit, and also joined the Louisiana Hayride radio program.
One year later, he released a cover of “Lovesick Blues” recorded at Herzog Studio in Cincinnati, which carried him into the mainstream of music. After an initial rejection, Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry. He was unable to read or notate music to any significant degree. Among the hits he wrote were “Your Cheatin’ Heart“, “Hey, Good Lookin’“, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry“.
Years of back pain, alcoholism and prescription drug abuse severely compromised his health. In 1952 he divorced Sheppard and was dismissed by the Grand Ole Opry because of his unreliability and alcohol abuse. On New Year’s Day 1953, he died suddenly while traveling to a concert in Canton, Ohio, at the age of 29. Despite his short life, Williams is one of the most celebrated and influential popular musicians of the 20th century, especially in regard to country music.
Many artists covered songs Williams wrote and recorded. He influenced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Charley Pride, and The Rolling Stones, among others. Williams was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1961), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1970), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987). The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2010 awarded him a posthumous special citation “for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”